YANGON—To house Rohingya refugees expected to return from Bangladesh, the Myanmar government this month began building 12 additional “model villages” in strife-ridden northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw Township.
In August last year, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as Al-Yaqin (“faith movement”), staged coordinated attacks against several dozen government border outposts. The series of attacks prompted the Myanmar Army to launch a security clearance operation that caused nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, which has become home to the world’s largest refugee camp.
The UN said the Army’s clearance operations had “genocidal intent” and called for the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw), Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court for his role in the handling of the Rohingya crisis. The EU recently imposed targeted sanctions against a number of Tatmadaw generals and is currently considering imposing trade sanctions on Myanmar over the crisis.
To facilitate the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees, the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments signed repatriation agreements in early 2018, but not a single refugee has entered Maungdaw through official channels so far. Meanwhile, government ministers keep saying they are ready to accept the refugees. Government representatives including Union Minister U Kyaw Tint Swe and Social Welfare Minister Dr. Win Myat Aye reiterated this position at the ongoing UN General Assembly in New York.
Rohingya rights defenders including Prof. Waka Uddin of Pennsylvania State University, who serves as the director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU), have claimed in interviews with several news outlets that the government has failed to prepare facilities for the return of the refugees.
According to Maungdaw District administrative official U Ye Htoo, local authorities are working on two projects: building modest houses for the refugees under the supervision of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD); and a new “model village” plan, which is still in progress.
He said that under the management of UEHRD, structures are being built in 19 locations, some of which are earmarked for ethnic Arakanese people. He declined to elaborate on specific numbers of houses being built for Rohingya and non-Muslim groups. At the moment, U Ye Htoo said, the government has 12 prioritized sites and each village will include a market, school, public park and clinic.
While the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government has been implementing resettlement step-by-step on the ground, Arakanese nationalists and politicians have demanded that the Muslim and Rakhine communities be segregated, with southern Maungdaw being declared a “Muslim-free” zone. According to U Ye Htoo, authorities will restore the Muslim communities in both northern and southern Maungdaw.
He explained that northern Maungdaw has more room for people to live in than the south. It’s unclear whether the affected areas would contain the same population balances as existed before the 2017 crisis. The refugees will initially be housed at refugee reception camps like Hla Phoe Khaung and Taung Pyo, before being transported to the model villages.
Meanwhile, two UN human rights and development agencies conducted initial assessments of 23 villages in the middle of September. Officials declined to provide details about the assessments, but said the agencies would report the results to the government as agreed in a memorandum of understanding.
A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) communications official confirmed the existence of the survey via email on Wednesday. She said initial assessments had been done in 26 locations chosen by the government in the 23 villages. The site officials met with people and carried out consultations focused on understanding the needs on the ground and also to identify possibilities to work with the government to improve the life of all communities who have been affected, she said.
A UN press official declined to disclose the exact number of Rohingya and non-Muslim villages mentioned in the identified locations. Nor did she discuss the physical arrangements being made by local authorities on the ground.
She wrote in an email: “UNHCR and UNDP are in the process of analyzing the data gathered for the assessment, however it remains too premature to draw any conclusions as of yet.”
According to her, the UN agencies plan to start a second round of assessments in new areas soon. They also plan to implement some projects recommended to them by members of the conflict-affected communities during the UN officials’ first assessment trips to the area.